Making Space for Brain Stuff

Last year, I wrote a post about Tighten's internal communications and how that influences our sense of culture and community. It's one important piece of ensuring an effective remote work team, to make sure that folks are engaged, connected, and empowered to ask and find answers to their questions and challenges in any given day.

While communication on a remote team is crucial to working effectively and completing projects successfully, effective teams begin with effective individuals. So, what makes someone an effective individual, and how can a fully remote company support that?

You ask such great questions! The answer is a combination of emotional intelligence, human resources, and neuroscience. I'll explain how we apply each of those at Tighten.

Emotional Intelligence

What makes someone an effective individual? Philosophers have been trying to answer this question for all of recorded history. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm going to identify an effective individual as one who has the emotional intelligence necessary for self- and other- awareness. This person is capable of identifying their own needs, and advocating to have those needs met in cooperative and non-harmful ways. High emotional intelligence is a good indicator that this person understands other people as well, and can empathize with peers, clients, and potential users.

Though it's never been listed in one of Tighten's job postings, emotional intelligence is present in every member of our team, and is one of the reasons we work so well together. We know how to care, and we aren't afraid of expressing that care.

Expressing care shows up in a variety of ways, in self-care when we acknowledge the need to take time off for personal wellness as a regular practice for physical or mental health therapy, regularly scheduled medical appointments, and using vacation time to recharge and refresh. And on the other side of the communication bridge, expressing care shows up as support for a colleague who isn't feeling their best, offering to help with projects as time allows, or just responding with a caring emoji — we're fans of hearts and open hand emojis here at Tighten.

Human Resources

The human resources part of the equation means creating and using systems that reduce the friction people can feel when they need to take time away from work to care for themselves or their families. When a colleague is already struggling with a personal health issue, we want it to be as easy as it can be for them to take the time they need to be well.

In practical terms in a remote company, that means choosing online tools with reasonable mobile interfaces, and separate policies for PTO and sick leave. We use Harvest for time tracking and Gusto for sick leave and PTO policy management. Both tools accommodate the needs of our team with enough flexibility and minimal friction.

It is cheaper for a company to make its employees use PTO when they are ill. It is a slightly higher administrative burden to track separate policies for PTO and sick leave. That said, it is completely worth it for your employees to know they have the support they need to bring their best selves to work and encouragement to take time away in order to recover their health or refresh their mind and body. You certainly won't bring your best self to work if you must always calculate "What if I get sick?" against "I really need a vacation." And that leads into the next topic — neuroscience.

Neuroscience

Disclosure — I'm not a neuroscientist. I'm a trained scientific and technical communicator by education, and a human recovering from a nerve injury that leads to episodic bouts of chronic pain. So, I've learned some things about nerves, brains, and mental health management in coping with chronic conditions.

The biggest thing I've learned is — humans are remarkably good at compensating for stress, for doing what they need to do to get through hard moments and hard times. However — that ability comes with some cost. It takes energy and resources and available brain space to process and cope with that stress. The longer the stress (could be literal physical pain, could be deep emotional distress) continues without reprieve, the more likely a brain will reach a point of complete overwhelm — a state known as "flooded" and often named "burnout" — and be unable to process anything.

How a person responds to that overwhelmed state is unique to the individual, but it can present as anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, and exhaustion. Once you've reached that point, it is almost impossible to function effectively. There is no processing capacity left for anything — your brain simply says "No. I'm done." You will not do your best work no matter how hard you try, and trying will likely make the overwhelm worse.

We don't want anyone on our team to get to the point of overwhelm, so we have checks and systems in place so folks have time and space to de-stress. We don't work overtime. We have 20% days for learning new tools and skills. We have a #kudos channel to express appreciation and gratitude. (Did you know it takes 5 positive interactions to balance every negative one?) We offer feedback as positive suggestions whenever possible. We have a #discuss-wellness channel where we can opt-in to discussions about mental health and overall wellness, and share articles about how brains work, and research about effective tools for dealing with things like chronic pain, or anxiety, or depression. We also have a #discuss-gainz channel for discussions about workouts, nutrition, and physical accomplishments. Bodies and brains both want to be healthy, but the needs of individual team members means that sometimes those discussions are better to be kept separate.

Making space and having systems that support a remote team to practice self-care, stress-management, and overall wellness also makes space for team members to bring their whole selves and best work to their everyday job. In these times of a global pandemic, that practice is even more critical.

Additional Resources

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you need support for your own mental wellness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Home is a good place to start.

Tips for talking about mental health: https://www.calltomindnow.org/covid19-blog/tips-talking-mental-health

Chronic illness and Spoon theory: https://www.healthline.com/health/spoon-theory-chronic-illness-explained-like-never-before

Emotional flooding: https://www.gottman.com/blog/making-sure-emotional-flooding-doesnt-capsize-your-relationship